Adding to the COVID-19 treatment toolbox

Adding to the COVID-19 treatment toolbox

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Sara Ericsson

No one is untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a virus that has had global implications from the beginning and one that’s seen international collaboration on research efforts to find a way to stop it. This massive scope might feel like it’s something outside of our control, but this research is, in fact, happening close to home here in Halifax.

Halifax-based Appili Therapeutics is a science health-care company that is spearheading front-line research on an antiviral that has the potential to become a treatment for the virus. CFO Kimberly Stephens says Appili Therapeutics’ work on Avigan, the antiviral it has produced that is designed to kill COVID-19 in patients before they get sick, means another treatment to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic is on the horizon.

“We hope that, at the end of the day, we’re successful in being able to help the world, to help Canadians and society move past COVID-19 and understand there’s another potential treatment and preventative option out there,” says Stephens.

Focusing on infectious diseases

Appili Therapeutics was founded in 2015 after a gap was identified in the proper capitalization of life science health-care companies. Stephens says Appili is solely focused on infectious diseases, with a mandate of identifying health-care needs that exist from patient, doctor and sector perspectives, so they can work on and potentially fill the needs that exist within the space of infectious diseases.

“COVID-19 is one of the most unfortunate things that can happen right now. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that it has shed light on the huge impact of infectious diseases. It’s also shown how we need companies like ourselves to be working on cures and treatments for these infectious diseases that people don’t think are as important as other headline-grabbing diseases, like diabetes and cancer,” says Stephens.

The company has five ongoing projects — each searching for treatments for infectious diseases — including an antifungal as a potential treatment for cryptococcal meningitis and Candida auris, the creation of a new class of antibiotics in response to the increasing number of diseases that resist current ones and a potential vaccine against tularemia, a biological weapon 1,000 times more potent than anthrax.

Their most topical research is their work on the antiviral candidate Avigan, which began as a potential cure for a separate infectious disease but was pivoted to COVID-19 research after outbreaks began occurring. The company has several ongoing clinical trials and studies, including one within participating long-term care facilities, an area identified by Appili as having the greatest need for a potential COVID-19 treatment other than a vaccine.

Appili announced its first site enrolment in October 2020, with enrolment continuing until 2021. Its study has also just received U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to expand the study into American long-term care facilities.

“More than 80 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in Canada have been within the elderly. We wanted to spend time in looking at how to protect the vulnerable,” says Stephens. “The elderly have weaker and sometimes compromised immune systems and vaccines often don’t work for them. This is one of the reasons we’re focusing on the prophylactic study; we want to provide elderly patients with an alternative.”

Kimberly Stephens is the CFO of Appili Therapeutics. Appili is developing an antiviral candidate, Avigan, that could one day be used as another COVID-19 treatment option alongside a vaccine. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Adding to a treatment toolbox

Stephens says Avigan would be administered as a prophylactic — a drug designed to prevent a disease from occurring — upon a patient’s diagnosis to kill the disease and prevent them from getting sick.

This is why Avigan is being evaluated as a viable option not only for seniors, but to reduce the severity and longevity of COVID-19 in mild to moderate cases. This would see it being used alongside a vaccine as yet another potential treatment.

“We believe an antiviral is needed and that it will be one of the tools in the COVID-19 treatment toolbox,” says Stephens.

Stephens says that while the biotechnology startup sector is risky and has its challenges, it is one of the most fulfilling industries she has ever worked in. And to be working on such research from Halifax is a metaphorical cherry on top of the cake.

“To feel that we are potentially developing cures or therapies for deadly diseases that have been neglected and [that these cures or therapies] will eventually help save lives is a bit surreal and so rewarding,” says Stephens.

< Back to Articles | Topics: Member Profile

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